activism

“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

 

Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly (more…)

I See You: The Effects of Representation

Many organizations think that being inclusive is simply an issue of hiring members of underrepresented groups. But people hired on that basis are not going to stick around if they feel isolated or that they stand out, or that they’ve been hired just because they’re “diverse”. One very important element in inclusivity is representation; people want to see others like them, and also want to see those other people being respected and valued.

Part of a new study by a group of US researchers looks at the effects of representation in a place that isn’t often examined: the readings that students are assigned in university courses. There has been plenty of discussion over the past few decades about “the canon” in various academic fields and what determines whether a work is a “classic”  that all students should be familiar with. The researchers investigated whether the gender balance of assigned readings in a political-science course – the number of readings written by men and the number of readings written by women – affected female and male students’ self-efficacy: their confidence in their own ability to succeed. The study looked at (more…)

The Right to Disconnect

The boundaries between home and work became blurred when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many jobs to be shifted online. Workers who were not permitted to come into their workplaces were working on computers in their living rooms, dining areas, spare rooms (if they had one), and even closets and bedroom. But even before that, boundaries were already being blurred by communications technology such as cellphones, text messaging, and email, allowing employers to contact employees at any hour of the day or night – which for many workers made them feel as if they are never really off work.

Ontario’s labour minister has proposed a legal “right to disconnect” is a step toward solving the problem of employers expecting workers to always be “on”. This is an important initiative, and the problem needs to be addressed. But this on its own is not going to fix the more fundamental and widespread workplace issues that the pandemic has highlighted, and which should be more of a priority.

The legal “right to disconnect” was first implemented in France in 2017, allowing employees to not answer work-related emails or calls during their time off. Canada’s federal government struck a task force in 2020 to explore the possibility of similar legislation for federally regulated occupations.  Ontario’s proposed legislation would require organizations with 25 or more employees to develop policies around work-related communications, such as establishing expectations for response times to emails.

It might seem that policies like this could cause even more stress for workers and employers, by compressing working time while maintaining expectations of continued productivity. However, (more…)

“The Power of a Collective”: The Experience of Unionizing at a Chapters/Indigo Store

As an author and as a reader, I love bookstores. I want to support bookstores that treat their employees fairly and respectfully, because knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff are the difference between a good bookstore and a great bookstore. So I was delighted when the staff at my local Chapters/Indigo store became members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and recently reached their first collective agreement.

Traditionally, retail outlets staffed by younger or part-time workers have been perceived as challenging to unionize. I was curious about the process that led to the formation of the Indigo 771 union, so I got in touch with Ariel Popil and Alex Johnson, the two union stewards at the store. They graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the experience of organizing the union.

[Note: since this discussion took place, workers at another Chapters/Indigo location, at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough, Ontario, have started a certification campaign.]

How many full-time and part-time staff work at Indigo/Chapters Pinetree? How many of those staff are in the union?

There are about 30 part-time staff members at any given time, and we have one full-time staff member. All part-time and full-time staff are part of the union.

When did the organizing campaign start, and why did it start? What was happening at the store that made the workers want to be represented by a union? (more…)

Blowing the Whistle on the CBC

One of the principles that managers are taught is the importance of listening to employees. Listening to employees makes them feel valued and included. But the other side of that principle, which regularly gets overlooked, is that the listening should result in action. If employees express concerns about the organization to managers, and nothing happens, that can lead to a distrust that potentially undermines the employee-manager relationship in the long run.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is Canada’s publicly funded national English-language broadcaster; its French-language counterpart is Radio-Canada. In the last couple of years, CBC has had several internal management-employee disputes that have spilled into public view. After radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired in 2014, it emerged that several employees had filed formal and informal complaints with CBC management about his harassment and abuse, but no meaningful action was ever taken. Last year, there was criticism of the CBC’s coverage of anti-racism protests in the US, reports that journalist/host Wendy Mesley had twice used the N-word in workplace meetings, and an arbitration decision that found CBC had wrongly dismissed a reporter who criticized comments by (former) hockey commentator Don Cherry. Not surprisingly, CBC employees then publicly expressed concerns about the lack of diversity within CBC’s own workforce, as well as bias in the choices of what was considered “news” and how some issues were presented.

In response to those complaints, CBC editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon publicly committed to a number of workplace initiatives, including (more…)

Into the Gap

Happy 2021!

The Globe and Mail newspaper is currently running a series of articles titled Power Gap: a data-based investigation into gender inequality in Canadian workplaces. I’m really pleased to see attention and resources being directed towards understanding this issue. To date, the articles are doing a very good job of unpicking why there are more men than women in positions of power in Canadian workplaces, and why men are generally better-paid. But the series also shows how difficult it is to address these imbalances in a substantive way, because of data limitations. It’s hard to solve a problem without fully understanding what’s causing the problem.

The complete explanation of the Power Gap project methodology is paywalled, but to summarize it, the analysis relies on data from “sunshine lists” – lists of public sector employees with an annual salary above a certain level, which most Canadian provincial governments release every year. Because these lists are not consistently formatted across provinces – for example, not all provinces release employees’ full names – the data on the lists had to be combined and then adjusted so the data were comparable.

Also, since the purpose of the Power Gap project was to investigate gender inequality, the employees’ gender had to be added to the data set. Gender data were collected through several different methods, including (more…)

Using “Blind” Hiring To Increase Workplace Diversity

One of the best-known studies of bias in hiring is the “blind audition” study. This study, conducted in 1997, explored hiring practices at American symphony orchestras – specifically, whether “blind auditions”, when musicians play for the hiring committee while hidden behind a screen, made a difference in how many female musicians were hired. The “blind audition” study demonstrated how bias could affect hiring decisions, even when the hiring process was designed to be as neutral and objective as possible. 

However, the study only addressed gender bias in hiring. Now there are suggestions that the findings from that study could be built on to address racial and ethnic bias. Although, like the “blind audition” study, these suggestions are based in the world of symphony orchestras, they have relevance to any kind of workplace.

Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, the authors of the “blind audition” study, were curious as to why the number of women in US symphony orchestras had dramatically increased from the 1950s to the 1980s, even though the percentages of women graduating from classical music schools did not significantly change during that time.

They suggested that (more…)

What Does “Systemic Racism” Mean?

“Systemic racism” is a term that’s been heard a lot in recent weeks, as communities, regions, and societies confront long-standing ugly realities around race and inequality. But what’s lacking in many of the reports about these upheavals is an explanation of what “systemic racism” means.

My expertise on this issue is primarily around how systemic racism functions in the workplace, not how it operaties in policing or in other contexts. However, since the commissioner of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has finally admitted that there is systemic racism within the RCMP itself, it’s worth remembering that what happens inside an organization or workplace can affect how the organization’s members interact with others. So understanding systemic racism within workplaces can also help to understand systemic racism elsewhere.

It’s also important to remember that organizations don’t make decisions or choices; people do. An organization doesn’t decide by itself to be racist or sexist or ableist. It’s decisions by people within the organization that cause those situations.

So when we talk about changing organizations to become less discriminatory and more inclusive – yes, we have to look at the policies and rules that guide how the organization operates, but we also have to look at the people within the organization, and the patterns of their decisions, and their attitudes. If people don’t change the way they act or think, then the organization won’t change.

To understand what “systemic racism” means, let’s start (more…)

Lawren Harris’ “Miners’ Houses, Glace Bay”

Canada Post has just released a set of stamps celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first exhibition by the Canadian painters who became known as the Group of Seven. The set has one stamp for each of the seven painters, and the stamp for Lawren Harris shows his painting Miners’ Houses, Glace Bay. I was delighted to see that Canada Post chose this painting, not only because it was the cover image of the first edition of the textbook that I write, but because Miners’ Houses represents an important part of Canadian labour relations history.

Harris created the painting in 1925, after a trip to Nova Scotia. The houses at Glace Bay, near Sydney, were the homes of  mineworkers and their families; at the time of Harris’ visit, the miners’ union was engaged in a lengthy strike against the mine owners, rebelling against (more…)

(Not) Helping Canadian Journalism

The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) is a fund set up by the Canadian government in 2019 to “support the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada”.  News organizations can apply for funds to cover the salaries of newly hired reporters, if those reporters are assigned to specific beats that address “news deserts”.   To maintain editorial independence, the fund is administered by a group of news industry associations that oversee the application and adjudication process.

Media organizations everywhere are having financial problems, largely because of competition from free online content and because of advertising buys going to websites and social media. So the intent of the LJI is commendable, especially if it can help support local reporting – which, as we’ve recently seen in the US, is critical in keeping governments accountable, and in building democracy by keeping citizens informed.

But LJI funds should not be going to media organizations that have largely been the architects of their own financial misfortune – and which could also be blamed for creating the “news deserts” that the LJI is trying to fix. Two obvious examples of such organizations that LJI has funded are the newspaper chains Postmedia and Saltwire.

Jeremy Klaszus, publisher of the award-winning online publication Sprawl Calgary, posted a thread on Twitter this week, after Sprawl’s application for LJI funding was rejected for a second straight year. (more…)